Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Irish films have me reelin’

Will the real Ireland please stand up?

One of the fascinating things about having a four-day orgy of films made in and/or about Ireland is that our perception of the place gets altered, either a little or a lot. Mind, it is a rare opportunity to feast on several Irish films in a short space of time (even in Ireland) as we did at last week’s Fourth Annual Irish Reels Film & Video Festival in Seattle, so we shouldn’t pass up the opportunity for reflection.

Certainly, a lot of America’s self-perception, for good or ill, has come from its movies, from the tales of rugged, individualist cowboys on the open range to the Darwinism of gangster-infested inner cities. It’s not unreasonable to postulate that the same would be true for Ireland. And even if it isn’t, films about Ireland certainly affect non-Irish people’s image of Ireland.

So, how is Ireland looking these days, according to its movies, at least the ones we saw last week? To answer that, we first have to acknowledge that there are really four Irelands:

  • The Diaspora: Thanks to the Good Friday agreement, the Irish republic’s constitution has been amended to state that Ireland is a people, not a territory. This is significant when you consider that, due to generations of emigration, the vast majority of Irish live outside of Ireland. And their view of their homeland is often the one that predominates in other countries, particularly the United States. None of the films in this year’s festival really dealt with the Irish emigrant experience, and maybe that’s just as well, since these films can be awfully dreary (cf. Gold in the Streets, I Could Read the Sky, 2 by 4).

  • The North: Of course, Northern Ireland has its own unique modern history which, despite its geographical proximity to the other 26 counties, seems oddly remote to them. We had one entry that dealt with life in contemporary Belfast, The Most Fertile Man in Ireland. And what a different vision it provided when compared to such serious features of the past like In the Name of the Father, Some Mother’s Son, The Boxer or the shorts Ship of Fools and The Case of Majella McGinty. Even past films about The North with a light touch, such as Titanic Town and Sunset Heights, mined their humor in very dark places. But The Most Fertile Man in Ireland is played strictly for laughs. Tension between the communities is still there, and the Catholic protagonist still has to worry about getting a beating when he leaves home. But in this Belfast, he can date a Protestant woman and they are essentially free to attend each other’s mass or Glorious Twelfth celebrations. Most significantly, people on both sides of the divide who are still fighting for supremacy are the buffoons here. An interest (very) minor sub-theme both here and in When Brendan Met Trudy: gay Orangemen.

  • The Republic: Depending on whom you talk to, the provinces of the Irish republic a) have been completely transformed by the Celtic Tiger economy or b) have not changed at all in hundreds of years. In the short Therapy, Cork has kept up with Dublin’s techno-throbbing, stay-out-all-night club culture. But in The Birthday (which, in fairness, doesn’t really specify a time frame), things are just as melancholy and tragic and untouched by the modern world as ever. The documentary Ahakista shows Cork to be at once fully part of the modern world but still uniquely Irish in every sense of the word. But our most telling view comes from The Fifth Province which shows traditional Ireland coming face to face with European integration, not always to the comfort of the Irish.

  • Dublin: Like most other European capitals, this city is really a world apart from the provinces that surround it. And this is the Ireland that got the fullest examination in the festival. The short documentaries in particular display Dublin’s ordinary neighborhoods and their quirky characters, from the principled and stubborn subject of Essie’s Last Stand to the idiosyncratic owner of The Nook. And the dark side of Temple Bar nightlife got a memorable examination in Flick. But the Dublin that sticks in the mind is the affluent and vital city that we saw in the documentary To Russia with Love and, particularly, the romantic comedy About Adam. This isn’t the gritty (and sometimes dangerous) city of dashed hopes that we know from The Commitments, Family, The General and Agnes Browne. This is a town where women are dressed to the nines, the men drive classic Jaguars, there is a party every night, and you only have to walk up the nearby mountains for gorgeous views of a glittering city. What would James Joyce think?

    -S.L., 15 March 2001

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